JC / Railbird


California Jam

Why gadfly horse owner Jerry Jamgotchian is coming back to California:

… Jamgotchian said he feels California is a better place to race now because the “purse structure is higher” and smaller stakes fields increase the chances of his horses acquiring black-type than, for example, at Gulfstream Park.

“There are less horses in California to compete against. The new dirt track at Santa Anita is also an impetus,” he said.

At least someone sees a silver lining in the horse shortage plaguing SoCal. More than 2,400 horses stabled at Santa Anita and Hollywood, and Saturday’s Sham Stakes, the first of the track’s Kentucky Derby preps, only draws five — all maiden winners, but for Clubhouse Ride. What is really going on? Foolish Pleasure would like to know:

Can anyone explain exactly what is the real story behind California’s so-called “horse shortage”? Reading Steve Andersen’s piece in the DRF this morning it struck me once again that all we ever hear out of that state in recent years is excuses why they can’t fill cards.

Field size, reports Blood-Horse in an article on the horseplayers’ boycott of California, “is averaging 7.69 horses per race, down from 7.91 from the same period last year.” That’s with one fewer day of racing a week.

I’m not sure how much longer the higher purses drawing Jamgotchian will be around, if the boycott succeeds. It does seem to be attracting attention. It also may be making a noticeable impact. Thursday was the first official day of the action, and compared to the previous Thursday, handle was down 15.26% (from $5,454,129 to $4,621,858), despite steady attendance, the same number of races, and a difference of five starters. The decline was striking, after a couple weeks in which figures were down, but difficult to interpret.

Five for the Sham, but eight for Sunday’s El Encino Stakes, which features certain 3-year-old filly champion Blind Luck making her first start of the year. She’ll be running against the new dirt’s speed-favoring profile and front-runners Champagne d’Oro (the other G1 winner in the field) and trainer Bob Baffert’s Always a Princess, coming off a fourth in last month’s La Brea Stakes.

Reading the Numbers

Nick Kling on the first 11 days of racing at Santa Anita:

Through Sunday, on-track attendance at Santa Anita is down 9 percent. Total all-source handle is down $11.5 million, a decline of 13.4 percent.

On-track and intra-state (within California) handle is down 7.8 and 6.7 percent, respectively. The most significant loss is in inter-state wagering, which has fallen 19 percent.

The trend: After the first seven days of racing at Santa Anita, average handle was down 18%, out-of-state handle down 21.9% over the previous year. After the first two days, total handle was down 26.2%, out-of-state down 32.3%.

Things are going great at Gulfstream: Five days in, total handle is up 17.2%.

Monday Notes

What a difference eight months can make: An email arrived over the weekend pointing to this DRF interview that appeared with then-new CHRB chairman Keith Brackpool in January 2010. Brackpool opposed the Los Alamitos takeout increase, telling Steve Andersen, “It’s a slippery slope … I don’t like it.” In September, after California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the law that included the statewide takeout increase that’s riled up horseplayers, Brackpool was quoted by the Blood-Horse as saying, “We offer in California the premier racing product on a year-round basis, but we were offering our first-class product at a discount price. We’re changing the pricing model.”

Whatever the reason for Brackpool’s shift in perspective, the board’s decision to accept higher takeout on exotic wagers so as to boost purses by $25-30 million seems to be backfiring just days into the Santa Anita meet. Ray Paulick beat me to the numbers: Wagering through the first seven days is down an average of 18% over last year’s winter meet; out-of-state handle is down 21.9%. One big bettor tells Pull the Pocket that he’s not playing California, and that others are either wagering less or looking elsewhere:

“Out of the guys who I have told you about before, two are just dabbling nickels and dimes at Santa Anita, one is betting much less, I have stopped cold turkey along with another. The last guy is looking for a new circuit to bet and tells me he has been studying for that. It’s unlikely he’ll come back, unless something changes there. The ones who are still betting obviously operate on very thin margins so if they see their day to day results dropping [e.g. with the higher takeout], I’m sure they’ll quit and just go for carryover pools and I’m pretty confident that will be the end result.”

Re: thin margins, Ed DeRosa has posted a chart clearly demonstrating how takeout affects bankrolls, and makes the point that it’s not only bettors harmed by raising takeout, but tracks. Short-term gains have long-term costs. One track that’s earning kudos for getting it right is Tampa Bay Downs, which actually out-handled Santa Anita last Wednesday and is posting double-digit gains daily. Tampa, which has had much success with its program for Churchill-pointing 3-year-olds over the past few years, may also draw the leading Kentucky Derby prospect this spring. Trainer Todd Pletcher is considering the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby for likely juvenile champion Uncle Mo, who’s about three weeks away from his first breeze of 2011.

1/4/2011 Addendum: Takeout math from Trackmaster, using a Pick 3 wager as an example. Originally posted last August, newly relevant.

In the Red

How the pool totals looked through the card at Santa Anita on Wednesday:

Pool totals through race six at Santa Anita, 12/29/10
Edited screenshot from an anonymous player forwarded by Pull the Pocket. Player’s figures vary in amount, not trend, from the totals posted on Equibase.

There was a Super 5 carryover of $32,444 in the nightcap, to which bettors added $111,054, but that didn’t much help the day’s total. Only $4,038,178 was wagered on the eight-race card, 28.1% less than the $5,617,017 that was wagered on last year’s comparable eight-race Wednesday card. Reviewing the numbers, Bill Finley concludes:

There can be only one reason why Santa Anita has gotten off to such a wretched start — the takeout increase. It looks like horseplayers actually can be pushed too far.

I think he’s right that horseplayers are feeling pushed too far, although not to the extent that handle is off by so much due mainly to horseplayer action, which is likely magnified by several other factors influencing wagering. There were 50 betting interests at Santa Anita on Wednesday, for instance, compared to last year’s 60, a decline of 16.7%. Yesterday’s fourth race was scratched down to three starters — on which Santa Anita bizarrely allowed trifecta wagering — reducing the pool totals on that race to a third of what the fourth race took in last year. There also hasn’t been a ton of value in the pools since the opener: Favorites have won 13 of 26 races, at an average price of $4.50, and finished in the money in 20 of 26. I didn’t play Santa Anita on Wednesday, and it wasn’t because I was protesting — it was because there was nothing to play. Never mind the boycott — like the SoCal track surface argument of the past three years, the takeout debate obscures a deeper problem — for the most part, California racing just isn’t that compelling.

12/31/10 Update: Steve Davidowitz says it much better: “Given smaller fields dominated as they are by heavy wagering favorites, it even can be argued persuasively that the prescribed takeout increase will prove to be an unfair price for the product on display…. The net effect at the windows is sending a stronger message than any boycott.”

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